Helping kids get into college is a big business — and it's growing fast.
The industry gained some unwelcome notoriety early this week when dozens of people — including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin — were arrested in an admissions bribery scheme.
The person behind it was William "Rick" Singer, founder of the Edge College & Career Network. He pleaded guilty to a number of charges, including racketeering, for masterminding the scheme, which included bribing college athletic coaches and having other people take admissions tests for the children of those who hired him.
Members of the profession swiftly condemned Singer's actions and pointed out that the charges exemplified the concern parents feel about getting their children into the right college.
"We know anxiety is off the charts. Part of the reason anxiety is off the charts is the decision-making in colleges has become so opaque," said Mark Sklarow, CEO of the Independent Educational Consultants Association. "We see that parents are willing to do just about anything."
His organization, a nonprofit that represents independent educational consultants, estimates there are about 8,000 people in the profession full-time, as well as thousands more who "dabble" in it.
The IECA has about 2,000 members — double the number from five years ago — who are required to abide by a code of conduct.
What you get for your money
The purpose of a college consultant is to help parents and their children navigate the application process, prepare for entrance exams and choose the right college — and it can cost a lot of money. The average hourly fee in 2018 was $200, according to the IECA. Comprehensive package costs range from $850 to $10,000.
Chris Rim, founder and chairman of Command Education, told CNBC on Friday he creates a yearlong road map for students that includes their objectives and what they need to do to stay on track. His fees start at $950 an hour.
"Because admission rates are so low, you can't just have ... straight As, perfect or near-perfect SAT or ACT scores. You are going to need something that makes you stand out," he said on "Power Lunch."
Colleges want someone with a singular focus, not a well-rounded student, Rim said. "They want students who know what they want to do," not someone who is the president of six clubs, he added.
Private college counselor Sara Harberson touts her experience as the former associate dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania and the former dean of admissions at Franklin and Marshall College. She also worked as a director of college counseling at the Baldwin School in Pennsylvania.
"I teach them how to think like admissions officers. That's what parents want. They want to get the inside scoop," she said on "Power Lunch."
It's also more than just helping prep for entrance exams or filling out applications.
"If they do it right, they understand kids. They understand teenagers and really what is the very best essence of who that student is. Most students in high school, they do what everyone else does," added Harberson. Her rates go up to $600 an hour, but she said she also does free work and provides consulting at a low monthly cost.
How to find the right advisor
The first thing to figure out is if you even need one, said the IECA's Sklarow.
"If you are at a school that has a low student-to-counselor ratio, you may get all the help you need in a school setting," he explained.
Students who know they have to attend a state university or are only choosing between a couple of schools likely don't need to hire an advisor either.
The next step is to decide if you need a few hours of consultation to get headed in the right direction or if you need a full package of service, said Sklarow.
""Unless states are going to infuse and overhaul their college counseling programs at high schools, parents are going to want this. They are going to need it — all income levels."
When checking out potential consultants, parents should look at the messaging on their website and pay attention to what is said in the first "get-to-know-you meeting," Sklarow said. If it is all about getting into college, that's a short-term outcome. If it is about finding the right place where the student is going to thrive, that benefit lasts a lifetime, he said.
On top of that, check out the consultant's credentials. He suggests parents look for someone who has a background in counseling and find out how many colleges the person goes to each year. Ideally, it would be someone who spends one-third of the time on the road visiting campuses.
"So much of that match is to really understand the college socially, educationally and other ways," said Sklarow.
He also said it's important to make sure the person is vetted and is a member of a national organization that has already done a background check.
While those in the industry "held their breath" after news broke about the admissions scandal, it now looks like it ultimately is starting to improve the profession, Sklarow said.
He's seen a spike in membership at the IECA over the last few days.
"Maybe in some ways this is going to lead to an industry that looks inwardly and finds a way to even improve on what we've been doing," he said.
Rim said he's already seen an increase in interest from potential clients. "Our phones have been ringing off the hook."
He thinks part of it is that parents "didn't know how competitive this process was. Just because you have perfect scores does not mean you are going to get in."
And it is something that isn't going to change — at least for now, said Harberson.
"Unless states are going to infuse and overhaul their college counseling programs at high schools, parents are going to want this," she said. "They are going to need it — all income levels."
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